Successful path to learning to ride

Getting Ready to Ride

A child can learn to ride a bike between ages 3 and 6, some even earlier depending on the willingness of the child. Some children take to it right away and others like to be cautious and take their time learning how the bike feels and moves beneath them. The timing depends upon your child’s comfort level, enjoyment and willingness. No need to rush or force it, your child will learn when they are ready.

Start with a Bike Helmet and the Right Clothing

Always, always, always wear a helmet. It is easiest if the rider wears a helmet from day 1, every time they ride. If they are used to always clipping on a helmet they are less likely to fight you on it. If that helmet still fits that your lil tyke wore in a bike trailer or seat, you can use it now.

Incorrect fit: Helmet sits too high upon forehead.

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 Correct fit: Helmet sits level across the middle of the forehead

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We recommend jeans or tough pants to help reduce the “ouchies”! Good strong shoes are a must. NO SANDALS OR FLIP FLOPS, old sneakers work well as feet will often be dragged across the pavement  while learning.

Preparing the Bike

Always do a pre-ride check

  • Check the tires for proper inflation (marked on the side of the tire). Check the tire treads for excessive wear or other damage, such as embedded nails or other objects.
  • Check the brakes. Spin the wheels to check for rubbing and then apply the brakes to ensure they stop the bike smoothly and evenly. Check the brake pads for excessive wear.
  • Check the cables and housing to make sure there is no fraying or splitting.
  • Check the wheel nuts to ensure they are secure.
  • Steering is smooth no play in the handle bars.
  • Check for any loose parts or other mechanical problems.
  • Push the bike and test, brakes.

The bike will roll more smoothly and your child will have an easier time coasting when bike tires are inflated to the correct pressure.

Finding a Place to Ride

Choose an area where a child to learn to ride safely, somewhere that is:

  • Traffic-free
  • Large, open area
  • Flat
  • Smooth
  • Paved or short grass

This location might be a driveway, park path, or empty parking lot. Empty tennis or basketball courts can also work well. Understand that your child will have little concept on how to stop a bicycle, be prepared to help them stop, either by walking along side or have them ride towards another supervising adult. The hand grip on the back of the bike seat works well for parents helping their riders “brake”.

Learning Without Pedals

Scooting and Coasting the Bike

Your child will begin by walking on the balance bike, this is a fairly intuitive process for many kids.  They won’t feel comfortable sitting down at first and just stand astride the bike. Scooting comes  next, where the child sits down and starts to get the concept of pushing with their feet and  balancing the bike. Once adept at scooting the bike, kids can be challenged to pick up their feet and coast. Make it a game: Count to 3 and see if he or she can coast with feet up for the full 3 seconds. Gradually add more time as they gain confidence in their coasting skills.

Turning and Coasting the Bike

Once kids have mastered the ability to scoot and coast the bike (and they are enjoying themselves) move on to turning and steering. Start with big, easy, looping turns.

Keep things fun with an easygoing game. A couple of ideas:

  • Place a cracker on the pavement 10 feet away and encourage him or her to run over it with the bike. This game teaches children to scan ahead and to direct the bike to a specific target. Place a new cracker at 15 feet out, then 20 feet.
  • Set up some orange safety cones in a pattern and have your child practice steering between them.

Making Progress

After some practice time, assess their progress. Children should be able to:

  • Coast the bike with their feet up.
  • Make turns while coasting.
  • Look where they’re going (rather than down at the bike).

Have fun while doing all the above.

If your child reliably demonstrates all these skills, it’s time to replace the pedals on the bike. For now, keep the seat in its lowered position. Children should be easily able to place their feet on the ground whenever they want to stop.

Pedaling the Bike

With a pedal bike, teach your child how to start moving from a stopped position. This will be the same concept as using the balance bike. They can use their feet to “run” the bike. As they gain momentum, they can start pedaling. Make sure the seat is low enough to the ground that both feet can touch and provide balance or assist with stopping, if need be.

  • You could try the traditional method of having your child stand over the bike with one foot flat on the ground, and the
  • other on a pedal raised at the 2:00 position, press down on the front pedal. Like the scooting action he or she’s already mastered, this pressure will give the bike its forward momentum.
  • Our favorite method is to have them push off in the same way they did riding their balance bike, a couple of decent pushes and they will lift up their feet onto the peddles. Verbally coach them to spin the pedals to keep up momentum.

Steering and Pedaling the Bike

As kids get the hang of pedaling a bike, they can start practicing turns. Encourage your child to do large circles and figure 8’s.

Keep things fun by making a game out of steering and turning. Try one of these:

  • As you did during the scooting/coasting phase, set up a line of cones (or other friendly objects) for your child to navigate.
  • Place the now-familiar cracker about 15 feet away and encourage your child to try to run over it. It’s not important that he or she runs over the cracker immediately, but it’s good to provide a reachable goal.

Once simple turns have been mastered, try a more elaborate pattern. For example, you can set out 3 crackers so that they form an arc on the ground. Encourage your child to try and hit each one.

Stopping the Bike

Thanks to their scooting and coasting skills, children can already stop the bike by using their feet. Now, have your child practice gently pressing on the coaster brake until he or she can use it without wobbling very much.

To practice braking skills, try another game. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Place a cracker or safety cone about 10 to 20 feet ahead on the ground and have your child try to stop before hitting it.
  • Use simple verbal commands. Have a child ride 10 feet and practice responding to your shout of, “Stop!” Mix it up. Vary the distances and encourage ever-faster stops.

As your child becomes comfortable with braking, you can raise the saddle back to a standard position. To adjust the seat to its correct height, hold the bike steady and have him or her sit on the saddle. At the bottom of the pedal stroke, there should be just a slight bend (about 80-90% straight) in the knee.

Follow the Leader

Once your child can ride fairly easily, get on your bike and have him or her follow you. Take it slow and easy, and make big turns every now and then. Set up a course with cones or crackers and ride it, too.

If you use crackers, see who can hit the most. (Make sure your child does.)

Remember to reinforce success rather than focus on any mistakes your child makes. One of the most important parts of cycling with very young children is to know when to stop and rest.

Taking an adventure

Once your child has successfully mastered all these skills, you can move on to bike riding as a family outing.  Look for local bike paths, easy trails, or large urban parks.  Have a fun destination like a playground, stream or beach.  Always pack snacks and drink, but don’t allow this to be a continuous distraction, define times to stop and rest.  Make it fun and turn around before your child is tired and starting to melt down, pushing two bikes and dealing with a tantrum back to the car isn’t going to fun for anybody.

Look for local groups in your area to ride with, if you can’t find a group start your own!


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